Space Jockeys

Brenda Cooper @ 21-10-2009

I was interviewed twice last week, and both times the topic of space flight came up.  One of the questions one of the interviewers, Annie Tupek, asked me was, “You write about mankind’s future in space.  What do you think is the largest obstacle opposing space colonization today?”

Here’s the short form of my answer to that question:  “…it’s expensive and difficult to get heavy stuff from here out into space. The distances are long and the travel hard. …  We tend to think it’s taking a long time to explore space.  The Wright Brother’s first flight was in 1903.  So in a little over a hundred years we’ve gone from being stuck fact to the surface of the planet to flying all over it all the time with hardly a worry except the TSA search indignities.  We’ve flown past almost every planet and moon in the solar system, landed rovers on Mars, and men on the moon.”

So I decided I’d write this month’s column about what’s happening as private companies compete to get to space. In fact, there’s so much happening, I could write a book about it.  Instead, I’m going to survey the news from LEO, give a little futuristic spin, and discuss one book.

So what’s happening with rockets today? Right now?

Well, the bright boy makes good story is certainly Elon Musk and SpaceX.  The only question left is really “Will Elon end up with all the old Shuttle work, or just half of it?” I saw Elon on stage at an event this summer, and futurist Mark Anderson asked him something like, “Why did you end up designing the ship as well as running the company?” and Elon answered something like, “Because I could.” With multiple running rockets and NASA contracts in hand, SpaceX may grow into the next Boeing or McDonnell Douglas.

Masten Space  Systems is even in the know about popular culture and the return of the zombie, winning some first stage competitions with the Xombie rocket. If you watch their video, you get the sense of contrast between NASA launches and what these little companies are doing.  These are shoestring and prayer outfits, even if many are funded by big boys from tech, and they’re having fun.

Third and last for this article, you can’t talk about rocketry today without mention XPrize winner Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites.  They’ve recently rolled out something they call the mother ship “Eve” as a next step, and had both White Knights and the mother ship at an air show just a few days ago.

Spaceport is a word from science fiction if I ever heard one.  But complete with snazzy web graphics that could grace the cover of an sf book, Spaceport America broke ground in New Mexico this year.  It comes complete with marketing text fit for the inside of an sf novel: 

The next chapter in space transportation is being written right now in the State of New Mexico. Forward-thinking pioneers are developing both vertical and horizontal launch vehicles using the power of free-market enterprise. [...] When it comes to outer space, New Mexico is bringing it down to earth!

Now their blog is a year out of date, but I’m hoping they’re busy building hangars and launch pads.  And of course, we do already have working spaceports in less audacious dimensions, and with better marketing.  So to see the one that’s up and running now, check out the Mohave Air and Space Port.

What’s being hyped?  The Rocket Racing League.  Seriously, you’ve got to watch the promo video.   Essentially, it’s NASCAR in rocket-fueled planes instead of rocket-fuel dragsters, and it looks like serious fun.  And they are, by the way, associated with Spaceport America in New Mexico.

My prediction? Success for this field.  It’s already happening.  Success in space tourism, success in both work to clean up the mess we’ve been leaving in space and success in putting more mess up there.  There will be more spaceports.  We’ll get to Mars and beyond.  But we do need to keep a little patience.  Like I said when I answered Annie’s question, this is going to take some time.  There are real engineering problems to solve, and without some breakthrough technology (always possible), it will be a fun, interesting slog from here to living on the red planet.

Oh, and my next short term prediction?  Post-recovery competition from other countries will jump-start the government’s space program.  And the two (the big boys at NASA and the brilliant tinkers) benefit from each other’s successes and dreams.

Science Fiction and Rockets

Well, there’s not much to say here.  We’ve all read, and written, space stories.  We know the names of rockets.  We’ve been to the movies and seen the Enterprise and the Death Star.  But I did want to point out my very favorite recent rocket-in-a-garage book.  That’s Red Thunder, by John Varley.  I grabbed it the minute it came out in 2003, and read it right then.  I just picked it up again for this article and I might just read it again.  It has all the engineering mastery and bravery and risk that real rocket science – the commercial version – is going to need to succeed.

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Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, will be out from Tor Books in November 2009. For more information, see her website!

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